Thursday, July 20, 2006

Empowerment or Assimilation?

Recently I read an article in a local paper about the trend of women in TV programs who are "empowered" by magic, psychic gifts, or other extraordinary abilities, such as in CHARMED, MEDIUM, and GHOST WHISPERER. The article cited BEWITCHED as the pioneer of this trend. Samantha, "empowered" by her magic? Not by any definition of the word I understand! She suppresses her powers to become a stereotypical housewife of the pre-feminist era. To please Darren, she agrees to refrain, as far as possible, from using magic, an agreement that of course gets constantly violated. Many of the episodes revolve around trying to hide or fix the consequences of magic use.

In the BEWITCHED universe, witches and warlocks are clearly a separate subspecies of humanity (as in the much later sitcom SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH, to which the term "empowered" might legitimately apply). They have their own society and culture, and the magical trait is inherited (and, judging from the example of little Tabitha, dominant). The series makes its theme of magic as a signifier of racial difference obvious when Darren remarks to his boss that Samantha's parents don't believe in "mixed marriages." Under pressure from her "mortal" husband, Samantha suppresses her natural heritage in an imperfect attempt to "pass." In the ultimate source text of this series' premise, Thorne Smith's novel THE PASSIONATE WITCH, the title character is a wicked seductress who uses enchantment to force the protagonist to fall in love with her. He eventually escapes her clutches and marries his true love, an ordinary human woman. In the movie based on this story, I MARRIED A WITCH, the witch and the male lead finally create a happy marriage, but the witch is still assertive and seductive. Domesticated Samantha, in the series loosely derived from the film, is something of a come-down from these prototypes.

I'm reminded of a horrifying story by Lisa Tuttle I read years ago in an SF magazine, called, I think, "Wives." An all-male group of human colonists has settled on an alien planet. Members of the native species, to survive, have attached themselves to the men as "wives." Their true appearance and anatomy aren't human, however, and they aren't even female in the sense of Terran gender divisions. (They may be hermaphrodites; I don't remember their actual sexual biology being explained.) They bind and mutilate their bodies to look like the human male ideal of sexually attractive women. The implicit social commentary is inescapable.

This issue applies to my favorite aliens, vampires. In fiction that presents vampires sympathetically, the hero -- the "good" vampire -- is often defined as the one who manages to behave most humanly. The clan patriarch in a made-for-TV movie, BLOOD TIES, featuring vampires as a different species, highlights this dilemma by calling a younger, progressive member of the family a "damned assimilationist," not only eager to be accepted among ordinary mortals but actually dating one, whom the old vampire derisively labels "the Pillsbury doughgirl." Weyland, the ancient, naturally evolved vampire protagonist of Suzy McKee Charnas' THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY, when faced with the temptation of caring for his human "cattle," takes refuge in the long sleep (suspended animation) rather than risk becoming any more like them, becoming domesticated. It's not unusual in vampire romances, whether about supernatural or SF vampires, that a vampire, to qualify as the hero, must come as close as practicable to "passing" for human. Which leads back to the question of how humanized -- or domesticated -- a paranormal or alien hero can become without losing the otherness that makes him appealing in the first place.


  1. Great analysis, MC.

    It often seems that paranormal romance edges up to loving the alien but flinches at the real consequences.

    If I recall, and correct me if I'm mistaken, you and I share the longing to read truly Lovecraftian romance, at least in terms of how alien the hero stays.

    Because of that post I'm rereading Clive Barker's Imagica, the closest thing to it. There is a love scene between Gentle, the hero, and his lover, an alien without human gender but the ability to create the illusion of anyone to please its lover. In that tense first sexual encounter, Barker says the lover is happy to be imagined as a wife, but the hero won't settle for the illusion and wants the real thing.

    Like you, I wonder what the "real thing" is in paranormal romance.

  2. I actually read this post after posting my own Tuesday entry.

    But my question about interstellar religious issues does fall right in with this observation, as well as with that about how "bitchy" a female AR protagonist can be.

    In BEWITCHED, the "religion" metaphor is "witch's powers" -- and personal appearance or alien-ness is likewise on the same personal level as the deepest assumptions about the nature of the universe we are embedded in.

    "Religion" is built upon that very deep and personal experience of our reality -- it is so deeply subjective an experience that it actually holds the place of total objectivity. That is, it's so obvious we don't question it.

    When that is reinforced by everyone around us, we take it for granted that everyone else sees the world the way we do.

    See my Tuesday post for more on this. It's eye-opening to explore the world from someone else's point of view and get it straight in your head what the difference is between your own opinion and the objective facts in the middle -- then someone else's opinion derived from the same objective facts.

    Beyond that, the core conflict of all drama is based in intransigent insistence on two mutually exclusive sets of facts.

    That's what we've got going on in our real world -- loud and violent insistence on two mutually exclusive sets of facts.

    As artists, it is our job to portray the real world in Art in such a way that different points of view shine through.

    As AR writers, we are looking for the way that emotional bonding can bridge that chasm and heal ancient wounds.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg